Polemics & Exchanges

Reflections on Chronicles

The March issue (“Against Ideology”) was a brilliantly perceptive one, notably as it stresses the utmost importance, for any true conservative, of defending loyalties to local mores and traditions, small hometowns and family farms, regional cultures—things that have passed the test of time and matter most to real people.

With such ideas I could not agree more, as shown by my own articles in other issues of the magazine.  But, if I may, I would like to suggest two small innuendos, or complements.

First, it should not be forgotten that loyalties to local communities and their traditions would not survive long without the protection of a nation, which is an entity I shall define as both large enough to be able to claim some degree of self-reliance and, thus, protective capacity (after the manner, if I remember well, of George Washington’s Farewell Address), but not so large—as empires are, for instance—that it gives birth to a remote and necessarily despotic power, looking down upon families or communities like so many disposable specks of dust.  Without the protective umbrella of a nation thus defined, local loyalties would be swept away.  This means that it is crucial for the states composing the United States to retain as much autonomous identity as possible.

Second, I feel there is some definitely Burkean inspiration running, wittingly or not, through these pages, a feeling reinforced by the frequent reference to Russell Kirk—a fervent admirer of Burke, if there ever was one: What has survived the test of time has passed a crucial test, that of deserving to be preserved.  Now again, I could not agree more, except that there is a Humean streak in Burke that I must disagree with: Prescription, while being a wise way to legitimize many institutions, should not be construed as self-sufficient.  To wit, Burke himself—by no happenstance, I believe—wrote these very disturbing words at the end of his Thoughts on French Affairs: “If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it, the general opinions and feelings will draw that way.  Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself than the mere designs of men.  They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”  Some years later Alexis de Tocqueville, who had read Burke, did not hesitate to draw the obvious conclusion: One should not fight democracy, because its slow maturing over several centuries proved it to be “a providential fact,” to be contemplated with “religious terror.”  Now, could it not be wondered whether another criterion besides duration is necessary to discriminate between things which deserve to be preserved and things which do not, and also to give courage to those who persist in opposing the current trend of public opinion?

        —Claude Polin

Aaron D. Wolf Replies:

I cannot think of a better man to advance the conversation that Chronicles is undertaking to have with conservatism in America than our friend and ally Claude Polin.  We are fighting together against the darkness, and Professor Polin has for many years shined a penetrating light of wisdom and reason on the inevitable path of untrammeled democracy, in these pages and elsewhere.  His praise of the March issue is humbling, and his critical comments are invaluable.

Indeed, there is a Burkean spirit running through our pages, in more ways than one.  As Russell Kirk (if I may) pointed out, so wary was Burke of ideology that, when attempting to counter it, “he could hold himself to the abstract expression of general principles only for a few consecutive paragraphs.”  That’s an accurate representation of the Chronicles editors’ frame of mind, but it also, practically speaking, reflects the realities of a monthly magazine: We cannot treat every angle of every subject in a given essay—or issue.

“We do not deny that nations exist, or that nations are vital”—those were the first words out of my mouth on behalf of the affirmative team (Williamson, Richert, Wolf) during last year’s John Randolph Club debate (Resolved: Nationalism is a dead end for conservatives; emphasis mine.)  And so I agree completely with Professor Polin that nations provide a prophylactic against forces that threaten from without.  Our friends on the negative team, whose perspective was and remains represented in these pages (one may recall the irreplaceable contribution of our late friend Sam Francis), seek to recover that protective bulwark—just as we do—but the way of nationalism is to sacrifice the particular on behalf of the general.  Such is, I would argue, the sort of “nation-building” that is (as we’ve discovered) impossible to achieve.  Hence Kirk: A “nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed.”

We then run smack into the problem that Professor Polin mentions by contrast—namely, that a vibrant nation be “not so large, as empires are . . . ”  But that is precisely what the U.S. is, and I say that without regard to our foreign adventures.  From sea to shining sea, we are a continental empire, a vast territory comprising divers societies and their cultures, which thus far remain distinct despite every attempt to homogenize them.  Still, America’s rough edges are being sanded down by a host of cultural and political factors—democratism being one of them, but only one ism among many.  And so it behooves those who want a strong American nation to fortify the communities that comprise it.  Let us have the big, beautiful Wall, but let us not delude ourselves to think that, when the last brick is laid, the American people(s) will automatically be great again.

As Chronicles can be said to share certain critiques and goals with other immigration restrictionists, so too can common ground be identified between Burke and Hume.  But in both cases, there are vast differences in the definitions of terms.  The whats and the whys diverge.  Prescription and prejudice are, indeed, the only legitimate basis of societal institutions—not because “’twas ever thus” (though ’twas), but because they convey, however imperfectly, those Permanent Things embedded into the creation of the world, which are known even to those “lesser breeds without the law.”  Hume would be bound by the prescriptions themselves, but not by the “superstitions” that gave birth to them.  Burke and Kirk and Chronicles know that such truths cannot be denied (whether or not they are upheld in piety is another story) without shattering the institutions.  Witness what happened to the institution of marriage in the United States once we divorced it from “and so it was from the beginning.”  (Chilton Williamson outlines this argument in greater detail in his column in this issue.)

I am not disturbed by Burke’s concluding statement in Thoughts on French Affairs because it is true.  But I don’t read it the way Tocqueville did, or at least with his level of tempered enthusiasm.  Providence permits certain plagues to be unleashed on society (mass democracy, totalitarianism, neoconservatism), but He is not necessarily their immediate cause.  If Scripture is any guide, these things are allowed to happen so that men might repent of something.  But unlike Tocqueville’s slightly rosier assessment (God is behind the sweep toward democracy, and therefore we must celebrate it and guide it), Burke’s oft-quoted conclusion is preceded by these weary sentences: “The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists.  The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me.  I have done with this subject, I believe, for ever.  It has given me many anxious moments for the two last years.”

I thank God that, in His Providence, He has given Chronicles Claude Polin, who is not done with the subject.

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